Photo: Jimmy Mould
We all know Erol Alkan as a great communicator and sharer of music, but it’s fair to say that the wait for the first solo material from the DJ, club promoter and Phantasy Label boss has been rather a long one. So why has he chosen the autumn of 2013 to release his debut EP? “It’s getting to the point where even though there is a lot of great music around, I just felt like I needed to get my hands dirty” Erol says. “If it doesn’t exist, create it.”
This drive and love of creativity while getting his hands dirty extends right back to the late 90s. Manning a phone in his North London bedsit, Erol would do the legwork promoting Trash, his legendary club where the idea of the indie night as a haven for lager-loaded lads was thankfully put to rest as genre divides collapsed and Electroclash bloomed.
At Trash, Erol fostered a community where people came round to the idea that Stardust’s ‘Music Sounds Better With You’ was a kindred spirit to The Smiths’ ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’. It was where Erol first played his bootleg of Kyle Minogue’s ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’ and New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’ that was later used at the Brit Awards, and which led the unassuming DJ, with his ripped jeans, long hair and black leather jacket, to getting booked to support Madonna and Daft Punk.
Erol Alkan never expected to be offered a residency at Bugged Out (halfway through his debut set for them), be awarded Muzik’s ‘Best Breakthrough Dj’ or to win the coveted Mixmag DJ Of The Year award in 2006. Club scene outsider Erol’s victory was a case of David versus Goliath; the winner from 2005 was Paul Van Dyk, the year afterwards was Armin Van Buuren, “Guys who are pretty much dance music industries” Erol says. “I made no bones about the fact that I fell into Dj-ing electronic music by accident, via a lucky break, but it doesn’t make me any less of a fan of the music.”
As he became increasingly in demand across the globe, he expanded his creative palette, producing critically acclaimed albums by The Long Blondes (‘Couples’), Mystery Jets (‘Twenty One’) and Late Of The Pier (‘Fantasy Black Channel’), all groups who followed the Trash aesthetic of smart music to move to. The same went for remixes, with Hot Chip, Kindness, Franz Ferdinand, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Scissor Sisters, MGMT, Justice, Connan Mockasin, Metronomy and Tame Impala all getting the Alkan treatment. “It’s not so much about putting my sound to a it – the hardest part is making something sound like you but also sound exactly like the artist” Erol says of his reworks.
These might have been played out by DJs from a huge range of backgrounds – 2manydjs, Michael Mayer, Tiga, John Digweed, Pedro Winter, Ata and Daniel Avery to name but a few, but Erol is especially proud of the personal response to Tame Impala’s ‘Why Won’t You Make Up Your Mind’ and Metronomy’s ‘The Bay’. “Joe from Metronomy sent me a wonderful text when he heard the rework of ‘The Bay’. That’s an important thing for me: if you take somebody’s music, mess with it and give it back to them, for them to respond ‘that’s great, I love it’, then that’s the greatest success. I’ve personally experienced that myself, when Gonzales reworked ‘Waves’ into a solo piano piece, or LFO remixing ‘Roland Rat’ and completely blowing my mind.”
Yet anyone expecting Phantasy to be a purely dance label would be mistaken – after all, one of Erol’s finest projects has been Beyond The Wizards Sleeve, a psychedelic odyssey in partnership with Richard Norris. Such enthusiasm for stranger paths as well as club music is reflected in the roster of Phantasy. “50% of the music that comes out on Phantasy isn’t for Djs” explains Erol. “Trash was an indie club, and I am still a fan of alternative music at heart so that part of my taste has never left me.”
In fact, he says, running the label is part of the thread he’s been following for nearly two decades: “Phantasy to me is an extension of Trash. When people say ‘oh you should do Trash again’, well I kind of am… In the way of the level of creativity, the level of community, the level of response, all of those things I got from Trash I’m getting from the label. It’s just a different platform.”
2013 has been an especially strong year for Phantasy. Former Trash regular and Fabric resident Dj Daniel Avery’s debut LP ‘Drone Logic’ (which Erol executive produced and mixed) has received rave reviews for its burbling, electronic psychedelia. “Much of the drive behind Phantasy is to simply make great records. And to make them on our own terms and within our limitations,” Erol says.
Add to that ‘Caramel’ the second album from Connan Mockasin, a strange record that sits in a beguiling world somewhere between John Maus, The Durutti Column, and outer space. Erol says he agreed to release the album after hearing just the one song. “It’s a good old fashioned, great indie record. It’s still extremely lo-fi, intriguing and very strange,” he says. “The post-2005 alternative music make over that happened, where every indie band looked cool and confident? None of that. It’s still completely mad, in the best outsider sense possible. The fact he doesn’t even know if he wants to do music further than this album is a breath of fresh air. I love the fact that it’s necessary for him to do it, not an option. That’s one thing I always found hard to stomach over the past few years is that being a Dj or musician is a career opportunity rather than expression.”
Far from careerist attitudes (“let’s face it, you wouldn’t run a label in 2013 to make money”) creating the Phantasy Sound studio is all part of Erol Alkan’s ideal of community and mutual support of creative endeavours. Citing the Motown label “where everything was made in one room” as an inspiration, Alkan says that both building the studio and the way he runs the label is about “trying to create an environment where we all help each other. I think that’s really special about the label, we’re not islands in our own little worlds”. Equally as important is that Phantasy is seen as a product of a London (“I personally feel I couldn’t have achieved what I have done, elsewhere”) that’s musically adventurous.
But what about Erol’s debut EP? The three-track release opens with ‘A Hold On Love’, a subtly building arms aloft slice of shimmering house that is as at home in Panorama Bar as they open the shutters as it is at your next summer festival. ‘Bang’ recalls the style and power of one of Erol’s favourite DJs Ron Hardy, a stripped out acid and drum machine workout coming to a sweaty basement rave near you. The EP draws to a close with ‘Check Out Your Mind’ which begins with chopped percussion before dissolving into a modern day acid psych freak out; calling to mind Erol’s love of psychedelia and his Beyond The Wizards Sleeve project. Erol says that the EP is a record of contrasts: “I want to make music that on one hand is quite simple and instant, and other times, like ‘Check Out Your Mind’, just odd.” Perhaps this sonic diversity comes from how the tracks were put together, with half an ear out for the dance floor: “These are the kind of records that I want to play. It’s that fine line of not being too far on either side, I need it to be interesting and not overblown.”
As ever with Erol, this is music that’s hard to place: “I don’t know which genre I’ve fallen into, I don’t know where it is, and that’s really exciting for me,” he says. “Not just in what I’m doing, but with my compatriots, on the label, whatever, it does feel as if as a collective we’re on a new path.” But it is Phantasy that means that Erol has complete control over what he releases under his own name, rather than just “putting records out to keep a Dj profile alive”. Essentially, Alkan’s intention with his own music is “to make interesting club music that has emotional resonance.”
With “about 100″ tracks in various stages of completion, we’re going to be hearing a lot more from Erol Alkan as he continues on his mission to keep on challenging – not just dance floors across the world, his own artists, or those he’s producing and reworking, but most of all himself: “If you can’t frighten yourself I don’t think you can excite other people – and I like being frightened,” he says adamantly. “You have to follow your instinct, and that’s what I’ve tried to do all my life, whether in music or anything. Instinct is the most powerful thing you have, and you have to trust it.”
Luke Turner, 2013